93: Out to Lunch

93: Out to Lunch

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Out to Lunch

You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments when you have truly lived are the moments when you have done things in the spirit of love.

~Henry Drummond

The elevator doors slide open and I step into the fifth-floor lobby of the assisted living complex where my grandmother lives. DEMENTIA UNIT, the sign above the nursing station says. WELCOME!

There, in one of several wing-backed chairs scattered about the lobby, sits Grandmother. She is dressed in slacks and a flowered blouse and, although it’s July and steamy hot outside, a heavy cardigan sweater. Her black patent leather purse rests on her lap.

“Hey, Grandmother,” I say.

She looks at me and I spot a flash of recognition. “Jennie!” she says. “What are you doing here?”

“Today’s Tuesday — the day we go out to lunch,” I tell her, leaning down to kiss her cheek. “Remember? Just like every week.” She nods. Near her, smiling pleasantly, is a woman I’ve never seen before.

“Hello,” I say. The woman continues to smile but says nothing.

“This is my new best friend,” Grandmother tells me, patting the woman’s arm. “And this,” she tells her friend, “is my nephew, Jennie.”

I do not tell her that I’m not her nephew or her sister or her cousin or any of the other kinfolk she invariably imagines me to be. I am just grateful she recognizes me and remembers my name.

“Are you hungry?” I ask. Grandmother nods. I sign her out at the nurses’ station but she hesitates before we step onto the elevator.

“I need to go back to my apartment. I forgot something.”

“You have your purse and your sweater,” I tell her. “What did you forget?”

“I need to be sure I turned off the stove.”

We head down the hall to Grandmother’s apartment. I don’t tell her that all the stoves on the dementia floor are decoys, and not one of them is plugged in. I don’t remind her that she doesn’t cook in this apartment because three meals a day are provided in the dining room. I simply snap on the overhead light in the tiny kitchen and watch while she fiddles with the burner knobs, all of which are in the off position. She twists one of them to high. “There,” she says. “That’s better.”

My car is parked about fifty yards from the front door of the complex and I ask Grandmother if she wants to wait while I get it. “No,” she says. “I can walk.” And she’s right. She walks just fine for a woman who’s almost eighty-eight years old, and I whisper a little prayer of gratitude for that.

I help her into the passenger seat. “Don’t forget your seatbelt,” I say. She stares at me with a blank look. I grab the chrome part of the buckle and hand it to her. “Pull this across your lap and snap it in.” I walk around the car and slide behind the steering wheel. Grandmother is still holding the loose end of the seatbelt.

“I don’t know what to do with this,” she confesses. “So I’ll just hold it.”

I buckle her seatbelt and adjust the shoulder strap so that it’s comfortable across her chest. “Now, what would you like for lunch?”

Grandmother is quiet for a long time and I wonder whether she’s contemplating her choices or has simply forgotten the question. “Fried oysters,” she finally says.

Fried oysters? In the fifty-something years I’ve known my grandmother, I’ve never once seen her eat fried oysters or any other kind of seafood. I never knew she was aware there was such a thing as a fried oyster. But we’re in a big city. I’ll find a restaurant that serves them.

We’re seated and the waitress hands us each a menu. Grandmother dutifully opens hers, though she can no longer make sense of the written word. “Look here,” I say, pointing to the seafood column. “You can get a fried oyster platter or an oyster po’ boy.”

“Do they have meatloaf?”

Without meaning to, I sigh. “I thought you wanted fried oysters.”

She frowns and shakes her head. “I don’t like oysters.”

So we order meatloaf and mashed potatoes and green beans. “And a cup of hot coffee,” Grandmother tells the waitress. “I’m about to freeze to death. I think I must have low blood.”

I smile to myself. Grandmother has been complaining of “low blood” for as long as I can remember, although — even when she didn’t have dementia — she couldn’t explain what that meant.

Our lunch is delicious and Grandmother eats every bite. Again, I whisper a prayer of thanks that her appetite is good.

As we head for home, Grandmother asks me to stop at the dollar store. She slowly pushes her cart up and down the aisles, staring in fascination at the hundreds of items on the shelves. “Is there something in particular you’re looking for?” I ask.

“Toilet paper.”

“Grandmother, they provide toilet paper at your apartment. Remember?”

“Well, I need some more,” she insists. “I’m almost out.”

We find the paper goods aisle and she picks out two packs of toilet paper and carefully puts them in the cart. On the way to the checkout lane, we pass a display of hair care products. Grandmother stops and slides a sparkly purple hairbrush off a hook. “This is pretty,” she says.

“Do you need a new hairbrush?”

“Is that what this is?”

I nod.

“I don’t know if I need one.”

“Let’s get it just in case,” I say.

When we arrive back at the assisted living complex, we ride the elevator to the fifth floor. Grandmother’s new best friend is still sitting in the same wing-backed chair, dozing softly. We don’t wake her. I sign Grandmother in at the nurses’ station and we make our way down the hall to her apartment. I open the door of the small linen closet and put the two new packages of toilet paper beside the half-dozen packages on the shelf. I remove the plastic wrapper from the sparkly purple hairbrush and set it next to the other hairbrushes on the bathroom counter.

It’s time to tell Grandmother goodbye. She’s in the kitchen, fiddling with the stove knobs.

“Good thing we got home when we did,” she says. “My nurse left the stove on high. She could have burned the place down.”

I give Grandmother a kiss. “I’ll see you next Tuesday,” I tell her. “We’ll go out to lunch.”

She puts her arms around me and hugs me tight. “Thanks for the oysters.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I love you, Jennie,” she says.

“I love you, too,” I answer.

~Jennie Ivey

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